Back when I was in Primary School a very elderly teacher used to come in to teach the class singing. She taught a selection of traditional ballads that I’d never heard before or mostly, never since but there was one that has always stuck in my head. It was the tale of “Sweet Polly Oliver” who “lay musing in bed/when a sudden strange fancy came into her head”. She decides to dress in her dead brother’s clothes and enlist as a soldier to be with the man she loves who was serving in the army. This song probably dating from the 1840’s ran through my head whilst I was reading Marina Fiorato’s impressive seventh novel.
Kit Kavanagh decides to do the same as Polly Oliver after her husband takes the Queen’s Shilling in their Dublin bar in 1702. Kit follows him, ending up in conflict in Italy as a member of the Royal Scots Grey Dragoons. This novel has a lot to tell us about gender. Kit purchases a silver implement to provide the necessary physical adaptations and is increasingly able to throw herself into the life of a soldier. She faces a dilemma when she begins to have feelings for her Captain and becomes confused by his attentions to her. I was urging her on to find her husband but that is only part of the story and Kit’s tale becomes increasingly fascinating. At times I did think things were straining the bounds of plausibility and it was not until I finished the book that I discovered it is strongly based on fact. Kit Kavanagh did serve in the Dragoons, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner because of her distinguished army service and was commended by Queen Anne. She could have feasibly been the inspiration for “Sweet Polly Oliver” written in the next century.
Just as the ballad of Polly Oliver was running through my mind there’s an earlier Irish ballad which was obviously running through Fiorato’s as “Arthur McBride” is present throughout. It is the tale of two cousins who encounter a pair of soldiers who attempt to press them into the army. I very much like the way Fiorato uses this throughout as a “touchstone” for the story she is telling.
The tale twists and turns sometimes in surprising directions and I was rooting for Kit right from the opening scenes when she is offered money by a stranger travelling in a carriage to roll down the hill so he could view what was under her dress to her final days in the Chelsea Hospital, reflecting a life where, for a time, she had something very different under her clothing.
It is well-written, vibrant, bawdy (there’s a few new swear words to be learnt here) and highly readable. The fact that it tells the tale of a forgotten extraordinary woman is icing on the cake. I think Marina Fiorato is for me a very good find and I am looking forward to reading her other historical novels.
(and very close to being 5*)
The Double Life Of Mistress Kit Kavanagh was published by Hodder in 2015. Many thanks to the publishers and Bookbridgr for the review copy.